(JTA) — A century ago, communists shuttered the synagogues of Tomsk, one of the oldest cities in Siberia.
It was a painful blow, especially to the local community of Jewish Cantonists — former soldiers who had been recruited against their will or abducted into the Russian Tsar’s army and forbidden from practicing their faith. After many years of forced service and persecution, many of them returned to Judaism in Tomsk, a city of about 500,000.
This week, local Jews feel a circle has been completed, as the city opened a Jewish education center, the largest currently in Siberia — the area of Russia that is east of the Ural Mountains and has been home to tens of thousands of Jews.
The building, which has a floor space of about 25,000 square feet, was inaugurated on Sunday with the help of leaders from the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The festive ceremony was attended by about 400 people, including Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, who flew in from Moscow, which is situated about 2,000 miles west of Tomsk.
The new center, where 200 Jewish children will attend various classes and workshops, features a kindergarten with three classes of children. With 15 children per class — half of the average at public kindergartens — it’s the only Western-style institution in the city of 500,000, with a robotics lab, modern furnishings, pottery workshops and table tennis stations.
“This whole building was built with donations from Jewish philanthropists, and that’s impressive,” Rabbi Levy Kaminetzky, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s emissary to Tomsk, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The 200 Jewish children who attend the new education center constitute a fraction of the building’s capacity, he added. The building will also be open to non-Jews who wish to enroll their children for extracurricular activities.
Jewish communities in Siberia with educational centers include Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, but those, also operated by Chabad-affiliated communities, are far smaller.
Tomsk is symbolic for many Russian Jews for its Cantonist community, which has become an icon of the determination of many Jews in Russia to adhere to their faith and culture, despite centuries of oppression, which culminated in the antisemitic persecution during communism.
The purchase and restoration of Jewish heritage sites in Tomsk has been ongoing since 1999, when the government returned to the Jewish community one of the buildings that had served as a synagogue.
In 2018, the city then handed over the Soldiers’ Synagogue, a dilapidated wooden structure that Cantonists opened about a century ago because they did not feel welcome inside the synagogue of the established community.
Efforts to restore that synagogue, which the Cantonists built by hand themselves, carving Star of David reliefs and other ornament into the wood, are ongoing.